Kimbyrleigha, as she’s known on the YouTube channel where she has more than 236,000 subscribers, had her first encounter with a multi-level marketing company when she was in high school. A man wearing a suit approached her outside the local library to say she’d be “perfect” for his job opportunity and handed her a bunch of brochures—which her grandmother later threw out because they didn’t “feel right.” 

That man turned out to be a representative from Amway, a well-known health and beauty MLM. People selling Amway’s products make money by recruiting other sellers, who have to buy those products up front before they sell them. Those at the very top make money from those on the bottom. Because of this structure, up to 99 percent of MLM participants either don’t make or lose money.

Kimbyrleigha, now 38, never ended up selling for Amway, but she eventually got involved in a number of big-name MLMs that target women, including makeup and beauty brands Arbonne, Mary Kay, and Beautycounter. (We’re using only her first name here to protect her privacy.) She’s a single mother, a demographic that MLMs tend to target. For stay-at-home moms hoping to juggle the demands of childcare with the need to make money, MLMs seem to offer a perfect solution—work from home with no prerequisites and quickly start making thousands of dollars by selling our amazing product.

Instead of relying heavily on the (now cringe-inducing) promises of distributors becoming a #girlboss or #SheEO, some MLMs have taken to telling new recruits they can become “brand ambassadors” or “influencers” for the product.

As many who speak out about MLMs like to say, when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Kimbyrleigha says she went through the “honeymoon phase” with these companies before realizing success wasn’t going to come as easily as she thought and that these MLMs were based on unethical business models. They promised that sellers of the product would become “CEOs” of their own companies, when they were really just contractors for the MLM. Kimbyrleigha has since built her own business—selling cell phone cases—and encourages other women, through YouTube, to do the same.

MLMs have been around for decades. But recently, they have evolved to exploit more modern ambitions: Not to become a CEO, but an influencer. And these days, it’s not usually a “guy in a suit” recruiting for MLMs. Kimbyrleigha credits this, in part, to the “crazy rise in mommy influencers” over the past couple of years. 

But those disillusioned with their MLM experiences have become “influencers,” too—reaching the people MLMs usually prey on to warn them about the mirage of success that these companies peddle.

Recruitment “back with a vengeance”

It wasn’t until March of this year that Kimbyrleigha, who has a background in law and her own YouTube channel for 10 years, started making content warning people about the duplicitous nature of MLMs. During the pandemic, many have begun recruiting more aggressively, targeting people who have lost their jobs and are forced to stay at home. The former MLM participants I spoke with say they’ve noticed an increase in these companies’ recruitment efforts; in late April, the FTC sent 10 warning letters to MLMs making spurious claims related to the coronavirus.

Recruitment “seems to be back with a vengeance,” Kimbyrleigha says. “I have 10 friends in my immediate group joining Monat and Arbonne … I think it’s all about the new marketing tactics. They know social media is where it’s at.” Most of Kimbyrleigha’s recent videos are about the stratagems and legal issues around MLMs’ practices.

“They have a saying in the MLM industry: ‘Your network is your net worth,’” says Naikoi, “which is super icky if you think about it, because it makes it seem like anybody you know is a dollar sign.”

She isn’t the only creator who’s denounced MLMs on YouTube since the pandemic started. Josie Naikoi posted her first anti-MLM video in May, though she left the industry more than a year ago (after six years working in fitness and skincare MLMs that she did not want to name on record). 

“At first I tried not to rock the boat and say anything negative about the MLM industry,” she says. But then “the pandemic happened. I saw so many vulnerable people being preyed on by these companies, and I felt compelled to speak out.” Her original video now has more than 524,000 views. She’s shifted to posting more anti-MLM content, and her channel has “started really taking off.”

Today, there’s a growing category of anti-MLM creators on YouTube. Most of them are survivors of the industry—but others are simply YouTubers who’ve seen that type of content trending on the platform and have decided to join the voices speaking out against it, whether out of altruism or for clicks. Many anti-MLM videos analyze the cult-like methods these companies use to recruit members over social media.

Targeting “stay-at-home moms”

While a couple former MLM distributors I spoke with, like ex-Beachbody “coach” Alanda Carter, say these companies will recruit “anybody who’s breathing,” in promotional videos, the best-known MLMs overwhelmingly showcase women selling the products. Carter (whose YouTube handle, The Recovering Hunbot, nods to an often used term for MLM recruiters) says Beachbody “coaches” tended to be primarily women in their 20s or 30s, blonde, and “many of them stay-at-home moms.”

And the products big-name MLMs tend hawk to look very much like the goods social influencers and “mommy bloggers” promote. Nuskin, Beachbody, doTERRA, Plunder Design, and LuLaRoe market skincare products and makeup, workouts, essential oils, jewelry, and patterned leggings, respectively. 

Far-reaching social networks are also crucial to “succeeding” at an MLM participant’s main function—recruiting new members. “If you don’t have a massive network to begin with, you’re pretty much hosed,” Carter says.

YouTube creator Savannah Marie sees the anti-MLM community growing on TikTok, mostly making videos that poke fun at MLM “Karens” who post on the platform.

When Naikoi started in MLMs in 2013, “the word ‘influencer’ was not a thing,” she says, but over the years she noticed the industry increasingly targeting new recruits on social media. She participated in trainings about how to improve her social media, increase engagement, and draw people to her accounts. Some of the tactics she learned were particularly insidious (she describes them in detail on her YouTube channel).

For instance, an MLM distributor will gush about the product they’re selling in a social post, “but they’ll have the name of the company turned so you can’t see it…to drive curiosity,” she says. People intrigued by this amazing product will then have to message the person directly to learn more. Sneakier still, if the distributor gets public questions about the product, they’re trained to coax the questioner into a private conversation. 

“The grooming tactics start early,” says Naikoi. “If I can influence you to have a conversation with me … the more open you will be to suggestibility.” From there, distributors can more easily suggest a potential recruit try the product, or join the MLM “just for the discount”—putting them at the bottom of the distribution pyramid.

Even more sinister is “FORM-ing,” a process for drawing in recruits by chatting with them on social platforms about their Families, Occupations, and Recreational activities before sending a Message about joining the company. 

“They have a saying in the MLM industry: ‘Your network is your net worth,’” says Naikoi, “which is super icky if you think about it, because it makes it seem like anybody you know is a dollar sign.”

Kimbyrleigha has other issues with how MLMs use social media. While the Federal Trade Commission mandates that influencers tag sponsored posts with “#ad #sponsored,” they don’t seem to crack down on MLM distributors, whose social presences often end up entirely devoted to the products they sell.

Instead of relying heavily on the (now cringe-inducing) promises of distributors becoming a #girlboss or #SheEO, some MLMs have taken to telling new recruits they can become “brand ambassadors” or “influencers” for the product, says Carter. Maskcara Beauty, for example, calls their ranks “influencer,” “elite influencer,” and “top influencer.” These companies ride the social tide. Now distributors have taken to posting tons of product videos on TikTok.

Anti-MLM content has migrated over to TikTok, too. Savannah Marie, a YouTube creator who’s worked for the MLMs LimeLife by Alcone (beauty) and Gold Canyon (candles—now closed), sees the anti-MLM community growing there, mostly making videos that poke fun at MLM “Karens” who post on the platform.

Drama in the anti-MLM community

Savannah started making anti-MLM videos on YouTube around 2017, when “no one else was talking about it,” she says. After making a video in which she burned all of her Gold Canyon candles, other former MLM-ers started coming to her to share their experiences. “It kind of sprung into a community,” she says. 

Lately, there’s been drama in the anti-MLM community, she says—people being “catty” and gossiping. She chalks it up to the community getting bigger and the topic more popular. It’s led to more people wanting to “gate keep,” she says, and developing strong feelings about what others should and shouldn’t post.

This drama led Kimbyrleigha to post a video in October about how she’s no longer a part of the “anti-MLM community.” In the video, she describes how the way she’s been treated in the community lately feels a little bit like … being in an MLM. 

“I felt used sometimes,” she says. “I felt like I have a big following so [people are saying] you need to post this because you have an influence.” Her worth, you could say, was in her network.